Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

NFL takes 'Monday Night Football' to Mexico to tap into country's passion for the sport

MONTERREY, Mexico — Like many football-crazed boys, Luis Carranza grew up with a poster of Emmitt Smith, his hero, on his bedroom wall and vowed to emulate him.

He took a one-hour bus ride to football practice, starting at age 4, and the discipline of study, running, study, running earned him a spot first on an elite high school team and then on what may as well be Mexico's Alabama Crimson Tide: the Rams of Tec de Monterrey.

He is now a star running back, and pint-size fans cried out his name and engulfed him for autographs after a recent victory, even though an injury had knocked him out of the game early. A star is a star.

"It's such a big tradition here," Carranza said. "Everybody is committed, even the little fans."

There is no tailgating here, but the stadium tacos aren't bad. Nobody cries "Gooooool!" at a big score, but the "touch" in "Touchdown!" gets more gusto. Instead of billion-dollar television deals, the games are limited to local TV and streamed on an Internet site. And whatever signing bonus these players have in their future will probably come not from the NFL but from the law firms and businesses many are headed to after graduation.

The addiction to the other futbol — futbol soccer, as people make the distinction here — is better known in this country. But the fever for U.S. football — futbol americano — feeds a vibrant subculture rooted in college teams that attract thousands of fans and players for the Tigres (Tigers), the Potros (Colts), the Aztecas (Aztecs), the Pumas, the Aguilas (Eagles) and one of the oldest and winning teams, the Borregos Salvajes (Rams.)

"The big difference with the Americans is size and speed, in which they have an advantage over us," Carranza, 23, said, explaining the appeal. "But here we play with heart."

On Monday, the NFL, picking up on the American football passion in Mexico, will play its first regular-season game in the country in 11 years, the Texans versus the Raiders at the famed Azteca Stadium in Mexico City.

The game, the first Monday Night Football contest to be played outside the United States, is sold out, with 76,000 expected to attend.

U.S. football does not have the global reach of basketball and baseball, but it is played in dozens of countries. In an international tournament of college teams, Mexico has won back-to-back championships, this year defeating a team from the United States made up of Division III players. Mexico has also done well in postcollegiate international tournaments.

This surprises nobody in Monterrey, where the Borregos Salvajes have long exemplified the best football in the country.

It was only a scrimmage, but the team's 2009 defeat of Texas' Blinn College, which featured Cam Newton at quarterback, is still recalled here with the fervor of "The Catch" and other great NFL plays.

"We didn't know anything about the team, but we heard all this talk about this great Division I quarterback playing for them," said Sergio Cantu Munoz, a Tec coach and former player who intercepted Newton, then playing for Blinn between stops at the University of Florida and Auburn.

Pulling up the video of the play he keeps on his cellphone, he added, "I didn't realize until later how important it was."

A handful of its players over the years have landed on practice squads in the NFL, but Mexico has had only fledgling professional leagues, including one that started in February but has only four teams.

Most players here know that college is the pinnacle of the sport. And then they graduate and move on to careers.

The league gives players seven years of eligibility as long as they remain enrolled in classes, meaning some are earning master's degrees.

Carranza is studying to be a lawyer, as are several of his teammates, while other players are working toward jobs in finance, engineering and other professions. The team claims a 90 percent graduation rate.

It makes Tec de Monterrey, one of the highest-ranking universities academically in Latin America, something more of a Stanford, then. But, with more championships than any other college, it can brag of the winning tradition of an Alabama.

"I would say they are like a midway Division II team or a strong Division III," said Frank Gonzalez, a former longtime coach who unsuccessfully sought to have the university join the NCAA. "There have been many players good enough to play in the NFL, but there are many more players good enough in the United States. There is no pipeline here to send them to the league."

The players say they are in it more for the game than for the fame.

Unlike soccer, with a powerful professional league and a system of clubs and academies to recruit and mold young players, the U.S. football pipeline is more ad hoc.

Many have followed a similar progression, the sons of players who joined one of the hundreds of youth football clubs in the country and then landed on high school and college teams, most often with the help of scholarships.

Tec de Monterrey has had a football team for nearly 70 years, an outgrowth of the sport carried to Mexico by U.S. visitors years before.

Television, and more recently the internet, have helped stoke interest in the game; NFL and college games have regularly aired for years, and cable and satellite television has expanded the offerings.

With Tec and the proximity to the border — about a three-hour drive to Texas — Monterrey has been a football hotbed.

Hugo Barberi, the coach of one of the largest teams here, said that membership had dropped off about 15 percent after the 2015 movie Concussion, about a forensic pathologist's fight against the NFL to recognize brain disease in players linked to their years of playing but that it had rebounded in recent months.

The club reduced contact at practices and changed tackling techniques to de-emphasize head-to-head collisions.

Likewise, at the college level, neurological testing has been introduced before and during the season, and coaches said efforts had been made to curtail dangerous hits.

The thinking here is that while the level of awareness of the health consequences might not be the same as in the United States, neither is the intensity of the game.

"The game is not as physical here," said Alberto Garcia Castillo, the owner and editor of receptor.com.mx, an online publication in Mexico that covers U.S. football. "There are hits, but it is done without losing valor and respect for the other side."

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